Wine quality versus wine profitability

It's easy to focus solely on wine quality if you have an independent income, says Robert Joseph. What are the choices for everybody else?

Photo by jennieramida on Unsplash
Photo by jennieramida on Unsplash

Your money or your life!

The choice offered by British highway robbers was undeniably binary. And fairly simple to answer.

But what about the choice between quality and profit? 

Over three decades ago, I was having lunch with Dominic Lafon of the eponymous domaine in Burgundy. Although it was my turn to pay, I handed him the wine list, asking if he had any recommendations. After the briefest of hesitations, he pointed to a Meursault from a négociant whose reputation was, let’s say, less than glorious.

“Are you sure?” I asked.

“Positive,” came the reply.

And, when the wine was poured, I was similarly positive about its quality. It was really classic white Burgundy.

“How did you know?” I wondered.

“Easy,” he said, picking up the cork from the table. “My father made this wine,”he continued. “But he wasn’t one hundred percent happy with it after tasting it in bottle, so we sold it as a job lot to Maison X, who simply put their own capsule and label onto it. But the cork’s still ours – as you can see.”

A few years later, the then-booming Australian winery Rosemount won an International Wine Challenge medal with a Champagne-method sparkling wine. When I looked into its background, I discovered a very similar story. The fizz had been produced by Brian Croser of Petaluma who, like Dominic Lafon’s father, apparently found it lacking, so decided not to sell it under his Croser brand.

Another Australian told me a rather different story. He’d just returned from Chile, where he had been sent in as a ‘flying winemaker’ to produce a batch of wine for a British supermarket at a very well-known winery.

“How did it go?”

“Well. It was very strange,” he said. “I mean why would Mr X” [the illustrious winery owner] “sell off several tons of his best Cabernet grapes just before the harvest?”

I learned the answer to this question from one of Mr X’s neighbours later that year, and subsequently had it confirmed by the man himself. “The business was within millimetres of bankruptcy. The bank was demanding that I pay in some money – or else…” Selling off those grapes for instant cash, he explained, had saved the day.

The first two of these stories celebrate the belief that winemakers – or producers of any other product – should always place quality above everything else. Even when others might believe that they’ve gone too far. But the third, of course, brings us back to the harsh reality that sometimes, this might simply not be possible.

Stated bluntly, taking their stories at face value, the Comte Lafon and Brian Croser could afford to sell off their less-than-perfect wine, while Mr X couldn’t afford not to sell his grapes.

Which brings me to Jonathan Nossiter’s awful documentary, Mondovino in which he delightedly shows the Burgundian, Hubert de Montille, declaring that he takes no notice of the market. “I sell my wine when I think it’s ready to be sold,” he says – or something very similar. The photogenic, bald-headed, twinkly-eyed French vigneron was unsurprisingly one of Nossiter’s heroes because he represented the peasant opposite of the Californian millionaires and aristocratic Tuscans Nossiter believes to be sullying the wine world with their wealth.

Except of course that de Montille (whose wines I love by the way) was no peasant. He was only able to ‘take no notice of the market’ because running his Volnay estate was not his principle activity. For over four decades, from 1953 to 1997, he was a highly successful lawyer. Indeed, he told me – even if he didn’t tell Nossiter, who would not have wanted to hear it in any case – that the secret to making really great wine lay in having another income. 

And there’s the rub. For most wine producers, with wages to pay and bills to settle and, quite possibly, restive bankers, refusing to compromise quality can be much easier said than done. Producers like de Montille with sufficient financial cushioning from other sources can do it, as can corporations like LVMH or AXA or Treasury. For everyone else, the only solution might lie in raising prices in order to create a financial cushion of their own.

But to do that, of course, they may have to reduce yields, buy the finest barrels, sell off grapes and wine and maybe even go as far as decide not to release a substandard vintage. All of which may be simply unaffordable. 

A bit like having to tell the highwayman that you don’t actually have any money for him to steal.

Robert Joseph

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